A theory of biological relativity: no privileged level of causation

Denis Noble


Must higher level biological processes always be derivable from lower level data and mechanisms, as assumed by the idea that an organism is completely defined by its genome? Or are higher level properties necessarily also causes of lower level behaviour, involving actions and interactions both ways? This article uses modelling of the heart, and its experimental basis, to show that downward causation is necessary and that this form of causation can be represented as the influences of initial and boundary conditions on the solutions of the differential equations used to represent the lower level processes. These insights are then generalized. A priori, there is no privileged level of causation. The relations between this form of ‘biological relativity’ and forms of relativity in physics are discussed. Biological relativity can be seen as an extension of the relativity principle by avoiding the assumption that there is a privileged scale at which biological functions are determined.


  • One contribution to a Theme Issue ‘Top-down causation’.

  • Received July 1, 2011.
  • Accepted October 17, 2011.
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